West Jordan horse therapy to help police officers with mental health needsOct 26, 2020 04:45PM ● By Erin Dixon
Stuart Palmer is a former police officer who is training to be a licensed clinical social worker and hopes to help other officers through counseling and hippotherapy.
By Erin Dixon | [email protected]
“Nearly one in four police officers have thoughts of suicide at some point in their life.”
“More police die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017 there were an estimated 140 law enforcement suicides.”
“Compared to the general population, law enforcement report much higher rates of depression, PTSD, burnout and other anxiety related mental health conditions.” (courtesy/https://nami.org/advocacy/crisis-intervention/law-enforcement NAMI)
West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine confirmed that mental health is a neglected issue in law enforcement.
“Early in my career, there was a lot of social pressure,” he said. “If you were having a hard time dealing with the trauma of the work, we were essentially taught to cowboy/cowgirl up and move on.”
Readers of the news for the past few months have been inundated with pleas for police reform and education that will prevent officer inflicted crimes. Wallentine asks for a moment of pause.
“Police are mostly very mentally healthy folks, but they live in a different world,” he said. “Have you ever seen a dead body other than in a funeral home or someone who died in their sleep? During an average officer’s career, the officer will personally witness 188 critical incidents where their life is in peril, another person is killed or significantly injured by violence, a child is killed, the carnage of a major accident and similar events.”
What happens after officers witness traumatic events? Mostly nothing. “There’s very rarely time to chill, or decompress,” Wallentine said. “They take whatever they’re exposed to and swallow it and it accumulates there. We hope they have a coping mechanism to let that off. The ideal would be to have the opportunity to process, but that’s just not reality. There's another call waiting.”
Stuart Palmer, former police officer and future licensed clinical social worker said, “We can do so much better at taking care of ourselves, each other and our families, as cops and as administrators.”
Palmer works with Mac Butler and Robert Lindquist, both LCSWs, at Unbridled Hope, a hippotherapy center in West Jordan. Butler and Lindquist have been supporting mental health clients for years and are beginning to offer their services specifically to police officers.
Sometimes an officer doesn’t get time to cope with the traumatic situation and may carry his or her thoughts and actions from work to home. Home life may be calmer, but the officer can continue to feel those escalated responses and take them out on whoever they spend time with.
With horses, the clients learn how to communicate without aggression. A horse is large enough and smart enough to push back but gentle enough to develop a relationship with.
Some of the therapy involves using “pressure,” or light to hard pushes used to train the horses and signal what is wanted.
Unbridled Hope rescues abused horses and pairs their rehabilitation with therapy for human clients. They teach a client to train a horse, which can be frustrating and disheartening. The goal between a client and a horse is to foster a relationship that shows that relationships can be won through gentle persuasion, not always brute force.
“At some point, I want to give my clients the most difficult thing they can handle,” Butler said. “It’s not easy [to work with a horse], and there’s a lot of failure in that.”
When the clients are unable to persuade a horse to move like they want and are unsuccessful, it will feel like failure. That’s the goal.
“It’s that frustration. It’s disappointment. It’s about building a relationship,” Butler said.
Unbridled Hope and Wallentine have the same goal: have ready and able mental health care for law enforcement.
“My hope is to eventually obtain funding to provide each officer with an annual mental wellness check,” he said. “We wouldn’t go more than a year without a physical checkup with our physician. Yet we know with certainty that we require officers to frequently suffer mental health injuries, and we let them go 20 years—an entire career, sometimes—without acknowledging the injury and the possibility of successfully treating the injury.”
Unbridled Hope is looking to partner with law enforcement groups to provide mental health services.
“Right now, we’ve approached the Fraternal Order of Police,” Lindquist said. “They cover four to six, sessions.”
When asked if six sessions are enough, Lindquist said, “Hell no.”
Wallentine thinks the solution comes from the cities the law enforcement serves. “Last year, the only thing I asked for was a piece that would provide a mental health check and medical exam as well as access to resources. Unfortunately, the city was not able to fund that,” Wallentine said. “You can choose time to be well, or you can choose to be sick. If you don’t take the time to be well, sooner or later you’re going to be forced to be sick.”